The way we remember: The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenman, has been controversial since the initial international competition was held in 1994. After years of public discussion about whether or not any Holocaust memorial would make sense given the scale of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime and the inconceivable pain caused to millions of innocent people, and whether or not Eisenman's particular design that was selected in a second competition in 1997 was a suitable response, the memorial was inaugurated on 2005. It consists of an outdoor field of 2,711 concrete stelae and an underground Information Center that provides historical context and exhibits victims' diaries, letters, and stories. The memorial has since become an important part of the historically charged core of Berlin, an area that went though significant changes since World War II. 

The location of the memorial is full of symbolic references:  the site housed the Joseph Goebbel's residence and bunkers for the Nazi elite during the Third Reich and became a razed no man's land after the war where the wall stood for 28 years; the Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag, and the restored Pariser Platz, another highly controversial project, are located to the north; and the new Potsdamer Platz, a center of commerce and entertainment, is a few blocks away to the south. The U.S. Embassy, prominently located next to the Brandenburger Tor and facing the memorial on the north side, is cordoned off and sits fortress-like in a sea of activity - a sign of these tumultuous times of terrorist threats and espionage scandals.

As I have only seen images of the memorial in various publications, I was curious to experience the field of concrete stelae on a gray and cold winter day. The memorial is built on 4.7-acres, an entire city block, and the sheer scale of it contributes to its power. The concrete slabs are arranged in a grid on wavy slope forming a network of narrow walkways that follow the changing topography. Combined with different heights of the concrete slaps create, this orderly labyrinth creates an unique sensation of varying levels of visual isolation and remoteness from the city, and a strong sense of three-dimensionality. The grid allows for thousands of options to move through the memorial with short glimpses of other people standing, walking, or running through it (running people are almost exclusively kids). Being in the memorial, I alternately felt the contemplativeness of a sacred place and the richness of life that manifested itself in the visual and audible snapshots of people. The immersion in a tight space of monotone gray emphasized the floating clouds in the sky and the kids' colorful jackets and smiles.

Is this memorial a place of remembrance of the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust? How does someone feel who lost a relative or friend in the Holocaust? I side with the critics that no single place or structure could adequately express what is inexpressible. But what the memorial does achieve is its daily integration into Berliner's lives who use it for meeting people, reading, pausing, and occasionally jumping across the slabs, which is of course strictly forbidden. In this sense the memorial works more as a public space than a detached and somber monument. Perhaps it is this integration that is establishing a presence of the memorial in people's mind and is one way of remembering on an individual and non-prescriptive level. The space that Peter Eisenman has created continues to spur positive or negative reactions but it is difficult to ignore, and this is its major achievement. I am hopeful that this memorial will encourage future generations to never forget and create awareness of how our life and freedoms are continuously shaped by history.

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Image Sources: 
1. Aerial: Google Earth
2. Heidi Sokolowsky
3. Wikipedia Commons